Horton Hears a Flawed Parable of Faith Versus Skepticism

On a superficial level, it's easy to interpret Horton Hears a Who as a parable about courageous people of faith standing up for their beliefs, and the foolish, imperious skeptics getting their come-uppance. A viewer might come away with that position if they watch only the first half or two-thirds of the movie. But in the end, it's not a story about faith. It does a better job warning that we shouldn't be knee-jerk skeptics, that reason and new material evidence sometimes trump old traditions.

In case you haven't seen it, here's a synopsis of the 2008 film (I haven't read the book or seen the short film in decades, so this interpretation might not apply to them, sorry): Horton the elephant hears a sentient vocalization from a speck floating in the air. This extraordinary event is outside of normal elephantine experience, or at least the normal experiences of local jungle critters. (We might as well say "normal human experience," since all the jungle critters and fantasy beings are anthropomorphized anyway.) One skeptical kangaroo doubts that a person's voice could have come from the speck. She thinks it's more plausible that Horton is mistaken or psychotic, and she persuades most of the other jungle animals to follow her.

Hijinx and hilarity and persecution are sure to follow (supposed to follow), until Horton gets all the tiny sentient beings on the speck to sing and make noise, loud enough for other jungle critters to hear, and they begin to believe him. Cue the big production number as they all sing "Can't Fight This Feeling" by REO Speedwagon. (Seriously.) Tie up loose ends, zoom out, roll credits.

Way down deep in the speck, we follow another story that parallels Horton's persecution and his struggle to hold up the truth as he has experienced it. Ned, the mayor of tiny Whoville, is the only one in his community who can hear Horton speaking. (No explanation is given, but maybe Horton's voice is outside the Whos' range of hearing, only audible when it resonates through just the right length of rain gutters and downspouts, to broadcast right outside Ned's office.) He even has an imperious nemesis in the Chairman of the Whoville Council, whose behavior is similar to Horton's nemesis, Kangaroo. Ned's story is similar enough to Horton's that we could just talk about Horton and we'd cover the same territory.

Faith versus Skepticism
Neither of these stories validates faith. Horton and Ned both prove what they've experienced. In fact, it's not a matter of faith to them in the first place, because their belief in these extraordinary events comes from trusting their senses, not their faith or their feelings or their loyalty to an idea. The doubters around them are eventually convinced by evidence, not by faith.

If we're supposed to take it on faith that other people are telling us the truth about seeing or hearing Jesus, that's not an example we're following from any characters in the movie, or a lesson that we're taking away from the movie. Everyone in the movie who comes to believe this extraordinary event does so because they hear it directly, not just because they trust someone else's testimony. The only two people who seem to exercise that kind of faith temporarily are Horton's friend Morton the mouse and Ned's wife Sally.

Morton the mouse may or may not believe it's true in the beginning, but he advises Horton not to tell people about it because they'll think he's crazy. Morton's position seems practical, along the lines of some of the apostles advising Jesus to escape before he gets crucified. Just avoid persecution, even if the extraordinary claims are true. It's practical advice if you're more worried about survival and fitting in to a closed-minded society than in sharing the truth and standing up for what you know to be true. He might be giving this advice because he thinks Horton's crazy. He might have advised Horton differently if he actually had faith in his friend's claims.

The only person who seems to have clear faith in someone else's account before experiencing it personally is Ned's wife Sally. In the end, she admits to being relieved that her husband isn't crazy, so it's not like she had much faith in him.

Example of Unhealthy Skepticism
Should we interpret Kangaroo as a model for reasonable behavior or "healthy" skepticism? To me, the reasonable position is that we should not believe extraordinary claims outside of normal human experience until or unless they are proven. But we have to meet people half way and give them a chance to prove it. We can't just assume they can't prove it. Think of all the things we reasonably believe today that had to be proven at some point, overturning an earlier incorrect belief.

Kangaroo doesn't bother investigating Horton's claim. She asks, "Why don't I hear it now?", assuming the speck would broadcast the same sounds constantly, so if there's ever a moment she can't hear it, then it must never have happened. She doesn't lean in close to the speck or go near it to listen. If she's supposed to represent the "modernist worldview" as Christian blogger Jonathan Dodson claims ("Horton Helps Us Hear Jesus?"), she doesn't do a good job of it.

Mama Kangaroo stakes out her hardcore materialist position twice in the movie: "If you can't see, hear, or feel it, it does not exist." Surely some anti-materialists will want to shout "IN YOUR FACE!" when Horton wins in the end. But he doesn't win by proving materialism wrong. He just overrides her knee-jerk doubt by demonstrating the truth to other people, until she can't bully them into doubting anymore. The jungle critters hear something they've never heard before, so it's not an instance of something "known" to exist without physically sensing it, not the kind of knowledge that would prove Kangaroo wrong. (By Kangaroo's sensational standard, she would also deny the existence of things that we deduce without directly sensing them, like the existence of sub-atomic particles or unseen planets whose gravitational pulls can be seen in the movements or wobbles of visible stars.)

The tyrannical rule-maker Kangaroo seems to be skeptical when it's convenient, not because she feels it's the reasonable position. She holds power over the suggestible mob of jungle critters. Denying Horton's claim helps maintain her position of power. Religious leaders and political leaders have been known to deny new developments that don't jibe with their worldviews. If they're proven wrong in one instance, it leads people to question authority. After her son and others say they hear it, Kangaroo commands them to deny it and tries to destroy the evidence. That goes beyond skepticism into something else. She's not interested in finding or sharing the truth. She wants to mold what others see as truth because it makes them easier to manipulate.

Kangaroo uses the same technique O'Brien uses against Winston Smith in Orwell's 1984. She tells Horton near the end that he won't be caged or restrained or persecuted if he simply "admits" that there are no people on the speck. To put it another way, she'll order the persecution to stop if he lies about what he has directly experienced. Like getting Winston to say that 2+2=5. She is not a model of reasonable behavior or healthy skepticism, but of how to control people no matter what the truth is.

If anything, Horton Hears a Who works best as a parable about people like Kangaroo and the Chairman claiming to be reasonable, unfairly stigmatizing other people as crazy or unreasonable, and being proven wrong in the end. It's a triumph of reason, with little or nothing to say about faith.


The Airship Destroyer (1909)

The Airship Destroyer (1909) aka The Battle in the Clouds, aka The Aerial Torpedo, aka Der Luftkrieg Der Zukunft, is an early short sci-fi film by Walter Booth.
[I had to take out the embedded video because it was too wide for my blog. Sorry. But click through and take a look at it!]


Bush Creates Jobs

Jim Garrison narrates this repeated video clip: 'Back and to the left. Back and to the left.'"Ramazan Baydan, owner of the Istanbul-based Baydan Shoe Company, has been swamped with orders from across the world, after insisting that his company produced the black leather shoes which the Iraqi journalist Muntazar al-Zaidi threw at Bush during a press conference in Baghdad last Sunday.

"Baydan has recruited an extra 100 staff to meet orders for 300,000 pairs of Model 271 - more than four times the shoe's normal annual sale - following an outpouring of support for Zaidi's act, which was intended as a protest, but led to his arrest by Iraqi security forces.

"Orders have come mainly from the US and Britain, and from neighbouring Muslim countries, he said. ..."


A Genuine Blow (Sic)

"Your invitation to Reverend Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at your inauguration is a genuine blow to LGBT Americans."

- Joe Solomnese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, in a letter to President-elect Obama

My question: When quoting someone else, would it be appropriate to add "(sic)" to indicate a pun or double-entendre that is so incredibly obvious, you want to clearly disclaim responsibility for it? Or is "sic" only for spelling and grammatical errors and like that?

Opening with Strangers Formula

The X-Files: Characters we've never seen before open the show. Something extraordinary happens, usually resulting in one or more deaths. A villain is usually introduced. Mulder and Skully investigate. They usually track down the villain, but can't always stop him.

Fringe: Characters we've never seen before open the show. Something extraordinary happens, usually resulting in one or more deaths. Olivia, Walter and Peter investigate the event, but can't always find whodunnit in the same episode, let alone stop the villain(s).

Law and Order (all incarnations): Characters we've never seen before open the show. One of them gets killed or finds a body. Whodunnit? The guest star. The bigger the guest star, the more likely s/he dunnit. For smaller stars, the more against typecast their part is on the show, the more likely s/he dunnit. Cf. Robin Williams, Linda Lavin, Vivica Fox, etc.

What formulas have you noticed lately?

This probably applies to lots of other mystery and police procedural shows, but Law and Order follows it strictly every time. Flipping through channels a few days ago, I caught some unknown actors talking, establishing character, one of them getting killed. For a minute I thought it might be an episode of Fringe I had missed, or the start of yet another L&O. Turned out to be CSI:NY.

I think I understand why they do it, and why it's important enough that they don't change the formula. These are all mystery shows. You could have a mystery about who a secret admirer is or who stole the Maguffin. (Cf. Ghostwriter.) But for higher stakes, somebody has to die.

You won't get viewers to care much for the victim at the start of every episode if it's just another corpse for the investigators to find clues on. You have to invest a few minutes in getting viewers to know or like or hate the person, so they'll feel something when the person gets murdered. That means showing the victim in action, talking with people, establishing character.

Another advantage of this opening gambit is that at least viewers are seeing a character and maybe a place they haven't seen before in the show. They're going to settle in with their favorite regulars soon enough. A few minutes of fresh faces will keep things interesting. . .until the fresh faces go pale from bloodloss.


Fringe House

Coming in January on Fox. Hugh Laurie plays a curmudeonly doctor addicted to Vicodin, recently released from a psychiatric hospital into the custody of Homeland Security agents to help them solve seemingly supernatural mysteries. When he's not annoying his estranged son or sexually harassing colleagues, he's dressing down students for failing to solve questions that he can't solve either.

Excerpts are from Fringe pilot episode (Season 1, Episode 1) and House "Lucky Thirteen" (Season 5, Episode 5). Anna Torv gives good Wilhelm scream. I tried to superimpose the Wilhelm scream over hers in that explosion scene, and you could hardly hear any difference. But I changed my mind and left her original scream in the final version. I know there are some quick shots of Walter that shouldn't have been included if House is supposed to be taking his place, but I liked those scenes of re-opening the lab, pulling sheets off equipment, stabilizing Olivia after pulling her from the tank, and Walter was in too many of them.

This mashup is dedicated to the Dire Paladins. Let me tell you about them...

I finished editing this yesterday morning and posted it to Youtube, but a certain computer hog wouldn't let me back on the rest of the day to post it here or elsewhere.


Privateers and Financiers

"The eighteenth-century New England privateers flew the American flag as a flag of convenience, not as a declaration of their allegiance to a cause but as a license to seize the wealth stored in the hulls of wooden ships. Their twenty-first-century heirs and assigns employ the semblance of a government in Washington as an investment vehicle permitting them to seize the wealth stored in the labor of the American people."

That's Lewis Lapham from the January 2009 Harper's. He goes on to talk about Robert Patton's Patriot Pirates: The Privateer War for Freedom and Fortune in the American Revolution. It's "a history of the Revolutionary War at sea published in a timely fashion last spring soon after the prize crew from JPMorgan Chase swarmed aboard the wreck of Bear Stearns. Patton suggests, and offers a good deal of evidence to demonstrate, that our war of independence was won by the stout-hearted greed of New England ship captains licensed by the Continental Congress in the autumn of 1775 to plunder, burn, or sell at auction British vessels bringing munitions and military stores to the king's regiments quartered on the merchants of Boston. . . .

"The voyages were rigged as venture-capital deals, the richest share of the spoils reserved to the managing partners who advanced the money to build and provision the ships, lesser amounts distributed to the officers, the subcontractors, the accomplice politicians, and the crews. . . .

". . . More importantly for the American love of liberty and pursuit of happiness, the lessons learned in the oceangoing counting houses of the Revolutionary War furnished the new republic with risk-management models that over the course of the next century settled the trans-Mississippi American West, built the steel mills and the railroads, financed numerous richly rewarding stock-market schemes, and by 1899, the year that Thorstein Veblen published his Theory of the Leisure Class, advanced the country's market society to a stage in which vendible capital had replaced vendible labor as the product that turned the wheels of fortune. The pirates no longer went down to the sea in ships, but neither did they go about the getting of an honest living. Reconfigured as predatory financiers embodying the ethic of what Veblen called 'the higher barbarian culture,' they lived off the work of the lower industrial orders. . . ."